John Hales’ superb map of Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Survey’d & Drawn by J[ohn] G[roves] Hales, Geographer Draftsman &c. / Engraved by T. Wightman Boston, Map of the compact part of the Town of PORTSMOUTH IN THE STATE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE M.DCCC.XIII.  Boston, 1813.
Engraving on two sheets joined, 27 ¼”h x 38 ¼”w plus margins, original spot color

A superb and extremely rare map of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Executed at the very large scale of 1”:2 chains (i.e., 1:1464), Hales’ map is imposing, extremely informative and remarkably decorative. Per the title it focuses on the center of town, which occupied a large peninsula bounded by Islington Creek, the Piscataqua river and the South Mill Pond. In addition to the detailed street plan, it shows property lines, individual structures in tiny plan (or “footprint”) view, as well as identifying public buildings, churches, wharves and important residents by name. Worth noting is the large inlet labeled “Dock,” long since filled and now part of the site of the Strawberry Banke Museum. The map’s large size and fine engraving, the profusion of fine residences and public edifices, the large wharves crowded along the shoreline, and the noble cartouche at upper right all convey the impression of a thriving seaport.

In fact conditions in Portsmouth at the time were anything but. The town’s maritime economy had been ravaged by British and French predation on American commerce, Jefferson’s retaliatory embargo of 1807, and the War of 1812. Further, technological change was about to transfer economic growth to towns such as Keene, Manchester and Nashua, where abundant water power was available to drive industrial development. To compound the town’s troubles, major fires of 1802, 1806 and 1813 had caused very heavy damage to the commercial area around Market Street. These fires explain the map’s most unusual features, namely the small symbols indicating fire houses and a variety of shading techniques used to differentiate residences and stores according to their mode of construction (wood vs. brick), as well as barns, stables, and schoolhouses.

This combination of features—the demarcation of lot lines, buildings shown in “footprint” view, and shading used to differentiate the purpose and building material of each structure—makes Hales’ map a milestone in the mapping of urban America. Earlier plans, such as Bonner’s of Boston (1722) or Hunter’s of Charleston (1739) had employed one or more of these features, but none had managed to convey so much information with such visual economy.

The map has a somewhat complicated publishing history. According to Richard Candee in Maritime Portsmouth, the earliest state is a “proof” lacking the decorative cartouche and other features and is held by the Portsmouth Athenaeum. A slightly later state has the cartouche and other decorative additions but makes no reference to the recent conflagrations. One or the other of these probably appeared by mid-1813, as an estate inventory from July includes a “map of the Town of Portsmouth” valued at $1.50. (Candee, ed., Maritime Portsmouth, p. 31)

By a terrible irony Portstmouth’s worst fire of all broke out on December 22, 1813. The conflagration began near the intersection of Church Lane and Jaffrey Street, affected an area of 1/3 by 1/8 mile on either side of Buck Street all the way to the wharves, and destroyed no fewer than 108 dwellings, 100 barns, and 64 businesses. To render his map as current as possible, Hales hastily introduced information on the three fires, which he featured prominently in an advertisement only 10 days later:

Maps of Portsmouth & Canada.

FOR Sale at the Book Stores, and by J. G. HALES, at the Bell Tavern, a New Map of the compact part of the Town of Portsmouth, with the different fires of 1802, 1806 and 1813 accurately delineated thereon. Also,

A New Map of Canada.” (Portsmouth Oracle, vol. XXV no. 15, p. 3)

On our example of the map, the areas affected by the three fires are picked out in wash and outline color, with the 1802 and 1806 fires in green and the 1813 in yellow. A later state, held by the Library of Congress, has only the area of the 1813 fire colored and an added note “Destroyed by Fire Decr. 22nd 1813.” A yet later state at the Portsmouth Athenaeum picks out each area of fire in a different color and adds engraved notations for the 1802 and 1806 fires.

The map is extremely rare in any state, and we have been able to locate only seven institutional holdings, including the two impressions apparently held by the Portsmouth Athenaeum. The present impression aside, we find no record of any example on the market in decades.

John G. Hales
Given the importance of his cartographic output, there is surprisingly little secondary information available on Hales’ life and work. A capsule biography in the preface of Hales’ Maps of the Street-Lines of Boston (1894, ed. By William Whitemore) writes that he

“appears in the Boston Directory for the first time in 1818, though he published his map of Boston in 1814. From one of his few surviving contemporaries it is learned that he was an Englishman, duly educated in his employment, that he was a rapid, possibly a hasty, workman, and that his business career was not always satisfactory. He died in Boston of apoplexy, May 20th, 1832, aged 47 years, and was buried in St. Matthews Church (Episcopal) in South Boston.”

Hales’ merits a far more thorough and sympathetic treatment, and I take the liberty of reprinting with mostly minor changes a biography I wrote for the 2009 Newsletter of the Boston Map Society.

Hales seems to have begun his career as a civil engineer in England in the late 18th or early 19th century, and according to one brief biography was involved in the enclosure of Somerset marshland from 1803-06. He must have emigrated to North America by 1810 or so and probably spent time in Nova Scotia before settling in Portsmouth. In 1812 and 1813 he produced a number of estate plans for Portsmouth residents, and in 1813 he issued A Map of Upper and Lower Canada, with part of the United States ajoining; comprising the present Seat of War. Soon thereafter he seems to have moved to Boston, and in 1814 he published the monumental Map of Boston in the State of Massachusetts. As with the Portsmouth map this was by far the most detailed map of Boston to date, showing property lines and building footprints and employing varied shading to indicate building construction. For all its merits the map seems not to have been a commercial success, as today it is extremely rare.

In 1819 Hales published—with John Melish, no less!—his Map of Boston and Vicinity, the most important map of his career. The map covers the region encompassing Beverly to the northeast, Scituate to the southeast, and Natick, East Sudbury &c. to the west. The large scale of 1 inch to the mile (1:63,360) enabled Hales to provide great detail of both the natural and human geography, including topographical features, town and county boundaries, the transportation network, and the locations of meeting houses, churches, manufacturing establishments, and private dwellings.

This map was for its time and place a sophisticated piece of work. To produce it Hales conducted a trigonometric survey (also known as a “triangulation”), using careful measurements and calculations to establish a network of precisely-placed locations, which served as control points for placing the details of the natural and human landscape.[1] The results were far more accurate than those yielded by traditional survey methods, and among other things included elevations calculated with considerable accuracy. Though these advanced methods had been in use in Europe for many years, and had been applied in the surveys of the American coast published in the Atlantic Neptune, this seems to have been the first time they were applied to a terrestrial map of New England.

A new map of Massachusetts?
Perhaps inspired by the success of the Map of Boston and Vicinity, Hales began work on a map of Massachusetts, also based on a trigonometric survey, with the hope of supplanting Osgood Carleton’s official-but-flawed 1801 Map of Massachusetts Proper. Given the magnitude of the endeavor, he petitioned the state legislature for financial support some time in 1820 or early 1821. The committee tasked to examine the petition was complementary to Hales and sympathetic to his proposal: “[We] are satisfied he possesses a thorough knowledge of his profession as a surveyor and draughtsman, and that the portion of the map he has already completed is very satisfactory and far superior to any plans of the same portion of our territory before executed.” (Columbian Centinel, March 7, 1821)[2] Sympathy did not translate to backing, however, and due to fiscal constraints the legislature chose not to support the project.

Hales persisted, attempting to finance his work by selling subscriptions to the planned map.[3] It was never completed, however, perhaps because in 1823 he was convicted for forgery of a promissory note (allegedly committed in 1820) and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.[4] It is unclear how much time he served, for in 1825 he published The County of Essex from Actual Survey. This excellent map is a natural complement to the Map of Boston and Its Vicinity, and it seems likely that it was an attempt to salvage something from the ashes of the abortive state map.

Private surveying work
In addition to his large-area maps produced for public consumption, Hales also conducted surveys for corporate clients planning major infrastructure projects such as roads, canals and railways. The identity of these works remains largely unclear, but it is known that in 1821 he was hired by the Merrimac Manufacturing and Patucket Lock Companies to survey a large parcel of land in Chelmsford, Mass., with an eye toward constructing a canal and other works. This parcel was soon set off and incorporated as Lowell, the first planned industrial city in the United States. Hales’ A Plan of Sundry Farms etc. at Patucket in the Town of Chelmsford, may be viewed on the web site of the Normal B. Leventhal Map Center.

Hales also did work for private clients, including an 1812 survey of the Wentworth family estate in Portsmouth. Some years ago I handled an 1818 plan of the estate of Joseph Head at 61 Court Street, Boston. This too may be viewed on the Leventhal Center web site.

Town surveys by the dozen
In 1830 the Massachusetts legislature roused itself and set in motion the creation of a new official state map. This was to be essentially a three-stage process, marrying the high- and the low tech: First, each town was required to conduct a survey of its territory and submit a plan to the Secretary of State. Second, a trigonometric survey would establish a network of hundreds of triangulated points across the state (essentially a more advanced version of the survey proposed by Hales just a decade earlier). Finally, the local data in the individual town plans would be superimposed on the trigonometric survey to produce the new map.

Despite his demonstrated experience, Hales was not tapped for the trigonometric survey (The forgery conviction may have been an obstacle.) Presumably based on the strength of his earlier work, however, in 1830-31 at least 45 towns commissioned surveys from him, including for example Boston, Cambridge, Concord, Dedham, Lexington, and even Northampton and Wellfleet. Today his original manuscript maps from these surveys reside at the Massachusetts State Archives.   In addition, some were printed by Pendleton’s Lithography in Boston and are held in major institutional collections as well as appearing occasionally on the private market.

Hales died in May of 1832 at the age of 47—of “apoplexy,” according to Whitemore. He left behind him a body of work impressive for both its extent and its quality, though one wonders what else he might have achieved if his life had not been cut short. Nevertheless, for both his prolific output and his championing of advanced mapping methods he deserves to be considered among the great New England mapmakers.

Provenance: Jean & Joseph Sawtelle Collection (This impression described and illustrated in Richard M. Candee, ed., Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection, pp. 30-31.) Cobb, Maps of New Hampshire, #88 (American Antiquarian Society, Dartmouth, Library of Congress and New Hampshire Historical Society). Phillips, Maps of America, p. 722. OCLC adds an example at the Peabody Essex Museum, and another is held by the Portsmouth Athenaeum, making in all six institutional holdings. Not in Antique Map Price Record or Americana Exchange.

In addition to Candee’s Maritime Portsmouth, two earlier sources include some limited, largely redundant biographical information on Hales: Peveril Meigs, “John G. Hales, Boston, Geographer and Surveyor, 1785-1832,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 129 (1975); pp. 23-29. William H. Whitmore, “Preface,” Maps of the Street-Lines of Boston. Michael Buehler incorporates and builds on these in his “Surveyor, mapmaker, forger: The career of John Groves Hales (ca. 1785-1832),” which appeared in the 2009 Newsletter of the Boston Map Society.

NB: We have been unable to locate the image of our copy of the map, sold in early 2015 to a private collector.  The image shown here is of the variant state of the map held by the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

[1] Boston Gazette (June 17, 1819), p. 4.

[2] Committee report, as reprinted in the Columbian Centinel for March 7, 1821, p. 1.

[3] Boston Intelligencer & Evening Gazette, vol. 6 (June 24, 1820), p. 3.

[4] Rhode Island American, July 25, 1823, p. 4.


Toned, with traces of old foxing. Several areas of loss reinstated in skillful facsimile.